Recovered Writing, PhD in English, Teaching College Writing, Assignment Design: Team-Based Competitive Blogging with Portfolio Integration, July 1, 2008

This is the fifty-second post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

Before I could accept my teaching fellowship at Kent State University, I needed to take the graduate seminar, “Teaching College English.” I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take this class from Professor Brian Huot. At the time, I thought my primary concern was putting together my first syllabus, but through the seminar, I learned the importance of meeting student needs, considering outcomes, meeting students on the page, helping students improve their command of rhetoric and multimodality with a portfolio, and considering student work holistically (something that I continue to do with the Georgia Tech WCP’s WOVEN modalities and programmatic rubric).

In this first of four Recovered Writing posts from this seminar, I am sharing a project with support for portfolios. Since I wrote this project, technology and teaching have come a long way, but the ideas in this assignment can be repurposed in many different ways.

Also, I enjoyed looking at the attached screenshots of WordPress circa 2008. I miss the earlier design for WordPress.

Jason W. Ellis

Professor Brian Huot

Teaching College English

1 July 2008

Competitive Team Blogging with Portfolio Integration

BoingBoing crew photo by Bart Nagel,

Introduction and Pedagogical Concerns

The five, seemingly innocuous persons in the photograph on the title page are the eccentric collaborative technoculture team of the insanely popular blog–“A Directory of Wonderful Things.”[1] They are Mark Frauenfelder, David Pescovitz, John Battelle, Cory Doctorow, and Xeni Jardin. began as a ‘zine in the 1990s by Frauenfelder, and later oozed online and evolved into the A-list blog that it is today. Through its various mediums–print, website, and blog–it has been a collaborative effort encompassing the various talents of different persons with complementary skills, abilities, and loves. Additionally, the collaboration of the “Boingers” is not only very synthetic, but also technically required in order to generate the copious content posted to their blog every day. Without this on-going large textual corpus, the popularity and repeat viewership of would not have been possible or sustainable.

I believe that BoingBoing’s collaborative blogging model has something to offer our students in an ever-increasingly technologically mediated world. Also, the writing aspect of blogging, which has been talked about in the literature by numerous persons, is a useful tool in the freshman composition and college writing classroom. Another important aspect of the blog is the archival aspect of blogging that lends itself as complementary to a portfolio centric writing classroom. However, team blogging necessitates some aspect to engender caring on the part of students in order to distinguish it as something more than merely writing online. This is achieved by forming groups to create a themed blog based on their major or interests, and requiring each team to report to the class as a whole on the “success” of the blog in terms of viewership and comments. This friendly competitive atmosphere will motivate students to work above-and-beyond in order to have better statistics than their rival groups. Therefore, team based blogging should be considered as another viable multimodal model for college writing courses, because it fulfills a number of important developmental tasks promoted by the Kent State Writing Program.

Competitive team blogging with portfolio integration for the College Writing I classroom is a pedagogical tool aimed at achieving several important goals: providing students a space and theme they are interested in, increasing student investment in a work that they “own” outside the context of the classroom, and improving teacher response by emphasizing explanation over marginal remarks, and embracing multimodal compositional practices by shifting student portfolios from physical media to the Internet.

The theory behind competitive team blogging is that students will care more about the creation, maintenance, and contribution to a collaborative work focused around something that interests them than artificial, individual assignments to be handed into the teacher. Their care for their blog and their writing posted to it will come with an audience larger than the class, department, and school. Reminding students of this broader audience, combined with their real-world data showing the origin of the viewers, should motivate them to work harder on this than assignments for a teacher-only audience.   Additionally, team blogs allow for all written work done by the student to be contained in an archive that’s always present, which encourages students to look back at past work, and more easily prepare revisions based on their own considerations and those provided by their team and the class as a whole.

This document on the implementation of competitive team blogging with portfolio integration contains a step-by-step methodology, a worksheet of topics to cover regarding collaborative blogging, a student handout on blogging and team blogging, and illustrated instructions on creating a collaborative blog with[2] Additionally, this teaching tool is intended as a guide for teachers, and is aimed at that audience. Each teacher who implements team blogging should tailor its employment to his or her class. Obviously, this pedagogical tool would be much more difficult for someone with a 4/4 teaching load as opposed to a 1/2 teaching load. However, I encourage alterations to this project that makes it practical and meaningful for you and your students.


  1. Introduce your students to your methodology and the reasons behind it. Be up-front and open with your students regarding competitive team blogging with portfolio integration. For example, tell them that they’ll be doing “team blogging” all semester, and maintain an emphasis on their contributions to their blogs throughout, and stand firm on the place of team blogging in the classroom. I don’t mean that you should not be a reflective practitioner, but the core idea of team blogging should be maintained and other alterations to lessons and assignments should be made if need be. Additionally, some students may or may not blog, and they may not be accustomed to extended teamwork. You’ll have to teach your students how to do these things, as well as teach them about other aspects of online content creation and commenting (these may be extended throughout the course).
  2. Gather student information. It’s expedient for the teacher undertaking the semester-length team blogging exercise to assign members to each of the groups. This is easily accomplished during the first week of class by requiring all students to email the teacher a numerated list of at least three interests or hobbies as well as their major. The teacher should tell the students the purpose of this exercise, and allow friends to request making their own team as long as they provide a convincing explanation for their team’s focus.
  3. Form teams. Following the gathering of student interests, form the class into four or five teams based on similar or complementary interests. Explain to the class that this will form the basis of their collaborative work over the course of the semester. Allow the students time to get to know one another, exchange contact information, and decide on the final theme and title for their team’s blog.
  4. Develop team roles. Have students review and write critiques or reports about popular collaborative blogging sites such as Gawker, Boing Boing, etc. before class. In class, open discussion about the purpose of blogs and the way in which collaborative blogs handle content creation from a number of authors. This means, guide them through understanding the roles of webmasters, editors, and content contributors. Finally, have the teams pick their first round of roles, which will alternate periodically throughout the semester in order to allow each member a chance to wear a different hat and experience different responsibilities.
  5. Create blogs. Devote a class in the computer classroom to guide the students through creating a collaborative blog with a free service such as (see Appendix 1 for instructions).
  6. Integrating blogs into the writing classroom. Non-graded individual assignments should be tailored as posts for the student’s team blog. If your class isn’t always in a computer classroom, require students to type up and post their handwritten class work before your next meeting.
  7. Building team competition. After four weeks of blogging, prepare your students for weekly group presentations. These presentations should be about five minutes in length for each team, so that no more than half a class is devoted to them. These presentations should include the following information: the editor’s choice of best post, the group’s choice of best post, site traffic numbers, and other interesting information such as incoming links and search terms visitors to their blog used to find their posts. Other ways of increasing competition is to offer prizes at the end of the semester for the best blog, and this can be decided by the teacher or by the class through the use of ranked voting (i.e., the class rates each team as either 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc, and the team with the least amount of votes–meaning higher ranking–wins). Cheap prizes such as KSU keychains or t-shirts may be given to the winning team, or the teacher may solicit local businesses for donated giftcards.
  8. Team blog as portfolio. The fearless teacher combines portfolios with team blogs. This would entail having students post all of their assignments, including the required graded papers, to their team’s blog. The teacher may use the comments on those posts to leave feedback, encouragement, and critique on each student’s graded post. Additionally, students will have the opportunity to revise their papers in a new posting, which they must link back to their original post. At the end of the semester, each student must write a post that includes links to their last revisions, which in turn will link back to their earlier drafts. This nesting should facilitate easy evaluation of the portfolio assignments.
  9. Reflective Assignment. For your students’ reflective assignment, they should reflect on the blogging process as well as the writing process that you model for them throughout the semester. They will realize that they will have produced an extraordinary amount of material individually and even more so cooperatively through semester-long blogging, which will add to their developing sense as a writer.

Topics of Discussion Regarding Collaborative Blogging

  • How is online content created? It isn’t “automagically” generated by machines. Real people, with real investments in what is being communicated, are behind the text that you read on your favorite blogs.
  • Online etiquette and protocol. Encourage openness and cooperation and warn against flaming. Even though our blog writing exists out in the Internet cloud, a human being created it, and we must respect the person behind that content. It’s okay to disagree and constructively argue with a writer about his or her content, but it’s not okay to attack the person behind the writing.
  • Team roles. Talk about the differences between the roles of editor and contributors. Encourage group cohesion and support. The editor’s role is not to discourage team members, but instead to encourage them. Additionally, all team members should comment on and provide support for the other members.
  • Intergroup roles. Members of each group should be required to comment on the postings of the other groups. These comments need not be about the content of the postings, but more importantly the ideas and argument communicated by the post’s writer to an online audience.
  • Citations and plagiarism. As in traditional writing, all works and sources should be cited in blog posts. WordPress has a quoting feature, and has a good model to follow regarding proper attribution.

Handout for Students

Team Blogging

So, what’s blogging exactly?

Blogging is the maintenance of an online journal, available for all to read, that reflects on your life or a particular subject. For example, I’m a blogger. I maintain a blog about Science Fiction at Each day, I write something relating to SF, teaching, or my personal life. Another example is, which is billed as “A Directory of Wonderful Things.” It’s run by several bloggers who post about interesting, political, and fun things that they find on the Internet.

You’re Blogging Now!

Team blogging is the basis for the most popular blogs on the net. Boing Boing, Slashfilm, Gawker, Valleywag, Slashdot, and many others write enormous amounts of content for their readers, because the task of writing is distributed amongst a number of contributors and administered by an editor. Over the course of the semester, each of you will get to experience the different roles in team blogging by developing your own blog in groups. Your team blogs will have a theme or subject that all members will tailor their writing towards. Also, everyone will post their assignments on the team blogs for your peers and I to read and respond to. I want you to own these blogs, so make as much of them as you can for a particular audience with an interest in your theme. To make things more interesting, everyone will have a chance at the end of the semester to vote on the best blog, and that team will get a prize!

I guarantee you that at the end of the semester you won’t believe how much you’ve each written, and how much you’ve progressed as writers. Furthermore, your blogs will explode with content that will interest many more people than students and myself.

Creating a Collaborative Blog with

  1. Sign Up Now! Direct your web browser to and click on the large icon labeled, Sign Up Now!
  1. Have one student create the blog’s administrator account using the Gimme a blog! option, and then have each team member go through the signup process with the Just a username, please option.image005
  2. Login to using the blog’s administrator account. The pages that follow are from my blog’s Dashboard—
  3. Click on My Dashboard (upper left). This is the heart of the blog where all management takes place. Now, click on Users (right) to invite the individual team members to the blog.image009
  4. The Manage Users area allows for adding contributors to the blog. At the bottom of the page, have the teams invite each member by their registered email address. Add everyone as Editor so that they can serve that function when called on, as well as contribute to the blog.image011
  5. Now that the housekeeping stuff has been taken care of, have the students log out of the administrator account, making sure to write down that information in a safe place, and log in with their own accounts. Once logged in, have them click on Write and begin exploring the text editing capabilities of WordPress.image013
  6. The Blog Stats are essential for team reflection on the progress and audience of their blog. Returning to “My Dashboard” and clicking on Manage, and then Blog Stats yields a wealth of information about the blog’s readers. This information should be utilized in the weekly team update reports. The graphic below shows the number of visitors over time.image015
  7. Blog Stats continued. These stat boxes show referrers to the blog and the most visited posts on the blog.image017
  8. Blog Stats continued. These stat boxes show search engine terms that lead visitors to the team’s blog, and clicks made by readers from their blog to external sites.image021
  9. Blog Stats continued. At the bottom of the statistics page are raw numbers of views and posts, and incoming links to their blog from other websites and blogs.
  10. Design considerations and other explorations. Encourage your students to try out different themes (My Dashboard > Design > Themes) and other design considerations that reinforce their rhetorical choices.image023
  11. Have students reflect on their own work as well as the work of others in class and on the Internet at large. Who knows, maybe they’ll develop the next “Boing Boing” success level team blog!image025



1000th Blog Post, or Randomly Meeting a Student Bound for the Stars

Besides being preoccupied by a few publishing projects and the upcoming Science Fiction Research Association conference in Poland, I have been wondering what I should write about for my 1000th blog post on Luckily, the topic presented itself earlier this evening when Y and I were at the local mall.

After dinner, Y asked if we could go look for a light sweater, so we hit the local mall and its several relevant stores looking for options. When we stopped by American Eagle Outfitters, Y tried on several things and she eventually settled on a couple of nice sweaters in white and black.

When we walked up to the counter, I thought that the lone female cashier looked familiar, but I wasn’t completely sure. Was she one of my former students? Her hair was slightly different as were her glasses, too. She appeared more mature than most of my freshmen students, but if she were a former student, several years might have passed. I did, however, remember her light freckles. Almost sure, but not quite, I didn’t say anything in case I had misjudged the margin of error.

Y and I said “hi” when we stepped up to her side of the counter, and she gave me an evaluative look and asked, “did you teach at Kent State?”

In that instant, she had broke the ice, and I was glad to know that she was a former student and that it was okay to talk about school. She reported that she was doing well and that she was one year away from graduation.

I remembered that she was one of my first College Writing I students, who I taught with a class theme of “space exploration” [look back at my syllabus here]. We read a number of non-fiction and fiction works relating to the human exploration of outer space, and the students wrote a number of essays evaluating and researching topics that we discussed based on their readings.

She smiled when I asked if she had been in the “space” class. She told me that it had been one of her favorite classes at Kent State, and she enjoyed the readings a lot.

Then, she told me that her mother back home had found her copy of Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of the science fiction novels that I asked the students to read. Not only did she like the novel, but she also desperately wanted her boyfriend to read it and she wanted him to see the movie, too. Knowing that I had turned a student on to one of my favorite (and earliest read–right after I had gotten to know Asimov and Bradbury) authors and novels. I consider this a great triumph, because I have not yet had an opportunity to teach a straight science fiction class.

After saying our goodbyes, Y and I made our way out of the mall and back to our car. We tried to snap a picture with my iPhone of the two of us with the sun setting in the background. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quick enough, but I did get an arms-length shot of the two of us in the expansive parking lot.

Driving home, I was happy to know that I had made a good impression on at least one student through my teaching science fiction. Since my “space exploration” writing class, I have tried other things with “cyborgs” and “cognitive science,” but I am particularly fond of that first foray into student composition aboard a rocket ship found in the imagination. I am also glad that that rocket ship continues on with at least one student manning the controls.

Student Portfolios on Writing the Brain Received, Time to Read, Reflect, and Grade

Today, my Freshmen College Writing students submitted their final portfolios to me by email. During this past semester, we learned about the human brain together, and they wrote about their experiences following different modes: reports, reviews, and meditations. This class was an experiment in combining my current research interests in cognitive science and cultural students with my teaching pedagogy [If you would like to see the class’ syllabus, you can find it here].

I hope that my students found the course stimulating and beneficial despite it being what many of them characterized as a challenging course. As I read over these revised versions of my students’ earlier essays, I will reflect on those things that seemed to connect with my students and those things that did not connect with my students. Studying my students’ work will give me a better idea about how to revise my class in the future. I will also anticipate reading my student survey responses, which I should receive in the Fall.

I am happy to report that one student was excited about the class enough to nominate me for the 2011 Writing Program Outstanding Teaching Award. Unfortunately, I did not ultimately win the award, but it is very satisfying to know that a student cares enough about my teaching to take the time and effort to write an extended nomination letter on my behalf.

This may be my last student teaching experience at Kent State. In Fall 2011, I will work with Professor Derek Van Ittersum in the Office of Digital Composition where I will among other things put together workshops for faculty on using computer technologies and software in the classroom. In Spring 2011, I will have a service-free semester to complete my dissertation, because I received the Kent State Department of English Kenneth R. Pringle Fellowship.

To my past students: I will still be around Kent State, but I will no longer be in my old office. If I can offer advice or provide letters of recommendation, please do not hesitate to contact me at dynamicsubspace at gmail com.

Good Discussion in College Writing Today

My students and I discussed Capgras Syndrome and Rivka Galchen’s Atmospheric Disturbances today, and we had a wonderful conversation following my lecture on the importance of the amygdala and the fusiform gyrus. It was also a great day to bring in my anatomical skull and brain model to use as a visual aid in class. I was also happily surprised that my students like Atmospheric Disturbances.

College Writing I Syllabus, Theme: Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind

I am afraid that this syllabus for College Writing I, Spring 2011, “Mapping the Brain, Writing the Mind” lacks the special effects of my previous syllabi, because I wrote it on a Windows XP computer while I was in Taiwan after my iPad died (details here). I didn’t want to lose my work again as I had done with the review of Tron: Legacy for the SFRA Review. Nevertheless, I believe that this class will be exciting and fun for my students, and more importantly, it will address the goals and requirements of the first tier writing class at Kent State University. You may download a copy of my syllabus here: ellis-jason-collegewritingi-spring2011.

Second Week of Spring 2011 Done, Now on to the Fun Stuff

As important as the rudimentary and routine parts of a writing class are, I am always glad to have the groundwork completed so that my students and I can move on to the fun stuff that forms the core of the writing that they will do during the semester.

In my writing classes, my students have daily and weekly writing assignments to do, and I spend the second week of class introducing them to that routine aspect of the class.

Their daily writing is usually focused on the theme of the class or some aspect of that day’s discussion. I want to give them a daily opportunity to do formal writing as practice, but it also serves a dual function to help each student formalize their thinking about the class for that day.

Their weekly journals are equal in length to two days worth of daily writing (one page each day for daily assignments and two pages for each journal). The weekly journal is an out of class reflection exercise that challenges students to consider the how, why, and what of the types of writing that they do each week. This work will give them material to drawn on for their fifth and final essay in the class.

This week, we also went over the basics of MLA formatting and documentation. My students will have an exam on Tuesday to reinforce the basics so that they will more easily be able to employ MLA throughout the course rather than in the middle as I had done in my previous writing classes. I was particularly impressed by how attentive and inquisitive my students were in today’s class. I believe some of them have used MLA before based on their questions, but I hope that the lessons we covered on Tuesday and Thursday helped everyone get up to speed.

Now that my students have begun these routines and covered the basics of MLA formatting, we can move on to talk about brains, brain trauma, and explorations of the brain. We will have much to talk about and I believe that the topic should be very engaging. Also, it will easily allow us to cover all of the critical thinking and research skills that we need to engage in the first tier writing course at KSU.

Second Week of the Semester Underway

Last night, Y and I had a welcome boost to the second week of the semester: Mack and Sue took us out to eat at Ray’s in downtown Kent. We had a great talk with them over dinner about their holiday and our trip to South Georgia and Taiwan. It was a relaxing start to the week.

Today, I had my first office hours of the semester, during which time I saw no students, but I did prepare my lesson plans for the week. I have adopted a new tact this semester for my first tier writing students. Instead of saving a professional writing style for later in the semester (in this case MLA), I am putting on the damage now. I have increasingly noticed students using online tools to create their citations and works cited lists that would have formatting issues. Furthermore, many students flat out refused to follow MLA formatting for their major essays. This semester, I want my students prepared enough that if they want to use those tools to save time, they will know enough about MLA (and Microsoft Word) to fix any problems that they may encounter.

Class went more smoothly than I had anticipated since I have returned to a fully digital classroom. Everything will be done electronically by email or through the school’s Vista system. Some students introduced new problems that I had not anticipated, but as a whole, my students were attentive to the way that our class would be run for the rest of the semester. I have high hopes for the remainder of the semester, particularly after we slog through MLA and can begin talking about brains.

My only complaint so far this semester is that an individual instructor or the English department is rearranging the desks in my classroom. I have moved the desks back to their original configuration once, but they were moved back into the new configuration today. The new arrangement makes it difficult for me to move around the classroom and attend to students with questions while observing others are on task. Thus begins an email to the writing center . . .

A Few Reading Strategies for the Science Fiction Novice

Underlying many definitions of science fiction is the fact that reading science fiction requires some level of apprenticing and learning of the key concepts, tropes, and concepts that appear in much of the genre’s works. Damien Broderick formalized this in his book Reading by Starlight, in which he argues that there is a ‘science fiction megatext’ that authors borrow from and give to that science fiction readers learn over time. Thus, reading science fiction can be a daunting task for someone not yet accustomed to the genre and its many elements.

However, this is true of any literature that you may read whether it be mainstream fiction from one particular historical period versus another, or another genre such as detective fiction or the western. Any reading requires a certain amount of heavy lifting on the part of the reader to engage the story and its characters. Perhaps with science fiction there is an additional attendant requirement to figure out the science, technology, and estranging qualities of the story, but the reader’s success at figuring these things out is part of the joy of any kind of revelation.

Below, I have written out some strategies for reading science fiction that can equally apply to other literatures. If you have other suggestions, please leave them in the comments.

  • Read slowly and carefully. Reading is not a race to the finish. You may have to read something more than once to completely understand the story, and you may have to read it a further time in order to uncover any greater meanings lying beneath the surface.
  • Keep a notebook handy as you read. Jot down ideas with the page numbers that attend those ideas.
  • Diagram the characters and actions in a flow chart or story outline to better make sense of a complex narrative. Who are the characters? Where do characters go? Who do they encounter? What happens to them? What do they do?
  • Keep a web browser open with two tabs: one for your favorite search engine and the other for Search terms that you have not encountered before.
  • Be smart with your reading. If you don’t have the time to read and re-read something, you should search the Lexis Nexis database for reviews of the novel. Wikipedia also has a number of plot summaries. However, I cannot warn you enough that these serve as a guide or introduction only; you should read the work at hand in order to fully understand it and experience the novel itself through the act of reading.
  • Don’t always think literally, and vice versa. When you come across something like, “She turned on her right side,” it could have more than one interpretation. She could turn over onto the right side of her body, or it could mean that she powered up the right side of her body (cybernetic implants, computers, etc.).
  • Pause during your reading to imagine what it is you are reading. This can be hard work, but it does get easier as you encounter it more often.
  • You only build new and powerful connections in your brain through challenging and unique experiences. The readings in my classes are intended to be just that. If you don’t do the heavy lifting though, you won’t get any of the long term benefits of engaging and surmounting these challenges.

Kent State College Writing II, Fall 2010, Humans, Technology, and Cyborgs

I just finished my syllabi for two sections of College Writing II at Kent State in Fall 2010 with the theme: Humans, Technology, and Cyborgs, and I have attached them here (section 002) and here (section 007). The classes are identical, but the meeting places and times have been changed in each syllabus.

This semester, I have designed the course around the image of the cyborg in fiction and our everyday lives. We will read C. L. Moore’s “No Woman Born” and James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” to get things started. Then, we will segue into William Gibson’s Neuromancer, Grant Morrison’s We3, and Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes, “The Best of Both Worlds” part 1 and 2. This will be a lightly theoretical class for sophomores, but it will have a heavy independent research component for the second half of the semester. I still have to finalize the three major essay assignments, but I have penciled in the topics on the tentative schedule on the syllabus.

One important change about these classes as compared to my previous classes at Kent State is that I have decided against using classroom computers for all assignments. I found in my last two semesters that students weren’t revising as much, and they weren’t generally writing their assignments to meet the minimum word count (a tedious task at times with Blackboard). Writing in long hand in class and revising that on a computer later will encourage revision practices, and having a printout of a student’s work will quickly let me see if word counts are reached. Using paper will also eliminate problems with students’ digital files (corruption, fonts, version incompatibilities, etc.). Perhaps Michael Scott on NBC’s The Office is right and paper is still very important.

I am excited to get things started in a few weeks, and I am glad that I have the latitude at Kent State to devise a class theme on my own. I enjoy working with these texts, and I believe that I will demonstrate that in the classes. Also, it will be useful to think of these texts in relation to my dissertation, which I will be working on concurrently with these classes.